The Mandalay Bay hotel and conference center sits toward the south end of the Las Vegas strip. Inside it, past all the smokey slot machines and brightly lit restaurants, you'll find sharks rubbing shoulders with Michael Jackson. It is the very essence of Vegas. It's also the pick up point for this year's drone rodeo -- a spin off event from CES proper out in the desert, away from the hustle and bustle of the show floor.
Gallery: Las Vegas Drone Rodeo | 36 Photos
Gallery: Las Vegas Drone Rodeo | 36 Photos
After about 45 minutes in a coach, we're dropped off at the breezy shooting ground north of the city that plays host to the event. Numerous quadcopters are in the air, small groups of people stare skywards, racing flags lean submissively in the icy-cold southerly wind. The unusual setting is the where the multiple faces of the burgeoning drone industry unite, giving us a one stop look at what's going down, in the business of going up.
The most visible attraction was the race track, hosted by the Aerial Sports League. It's no rodeo, but watching the nimble quadcopters dart up, down and around the racetrack is still very much a spectacle. To the right of the track sit the pilots, as motionless as if waiting for a bus, while inside their video headsets they're sitting in the cockpit of their copters, zipping through flag gates, and making breathtaking turns.
One of the pilots talks me through the technicalities of the sport, before showing me his "Game of Drones" battle quadcopter. He's particularly enthusiastic about showing me the impact holes from a time they brought it down with a shotgun. "The copter crashed, but just one cable needed replacing, and it was up in the air again."
A short walk across the compound, and the pace is entirely different. Inside a windswept tent, are Sensefly (owned by Parrot), a company that makes quadcopters for industrial inspection, and intelligent mapping. Its eXom craft cost around $40,000 I am told, and comes with three different cameras (HD, thermal, and wide angle) plus a host of extra sensors (like ultrasound) that make it particularly good at getting places most other drones can't. Add in the fact the camera can rotate to face up, down or pretty much anywhere, and you can see why this quadcopter is a workhorse.
On the exact polar opposite end of the scale, and the opposite side of the tent was the PowerUp FPV -- essentially a paper plane for the drone generation. The plane can fly for around 6 minutes, and streams video direct to an app -- which you can view via Google Cardboard to enjoy a similar cockpit-like view of the racers, but at a much more sedate pace. PowerUP is currently on Kickstarter, but fully funded and is also in partnership with Parrot. At around $150, it's the most affordable thing we saw, but it's also fairly simple.
One of the more interesting projects was Visual Vertigo. The company makes software that teases 3D images out of 2D cameras (using point clouds). The technology already exists, the team just had the bright idea of applying it to drone cameras. Fly your camera-enabled quadcopter, and view the footage in real time / 3D, or as they catchily call it: live 3D FPV VR. It's compatible with DJI's software, which means you could upgrade your Phantom 3 with a few new tricks, without changing the camera.
While we're playing buzzword-bingo, consider Nixie. We've seen this little critter before. It's a wearable camera drone, or as the team prefers to call it, a "flying camera." It's still very much in the prototype stage, but we were treated to a demo of it performing its "yo-yo" trick. Throw Nixie away from you, and it flies out, takes a picture, then returns. All in under two seconds. Your job is to catch it, and then deftly snap it back onto your wrist like one of those bands from back in the day. It's cute, and fun, that's for sure.
Just after our demo, the somber-looking clouds that had been looming over the surrounding hills close in, it starts to rain. Then it starts to pour. Several emergency landings are made, quadcopters are hastily packed up, and refuge sought in the tent. The weather conspiring against us, but for one brief moment, all four corners of the drone world stand united.